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May 17, 2018

Out of Her Shell

From day player to series regular, Selenis Leyva speaks her mind.

Virginia Pelley
  • Contarsy Karecha & Highmark Studios

"Great. Another fucking coconut."

This line, delivered by Selenis Leyva in the first season of Orange Is the New Black, dripped with her character's contempt for a new Latina inmate who could not speak Spanish. The moment also catapulted Leyva into the next phase of her career. Since then, she has consistently stolen scenes on the Netflix series, even though her character originally had no backstory beyond "Gloria Mendoza, Latina."

"If you ask any actor if they would ever expect to go from day player to series regular, they would say, 'Absolutely not,'" says Leyva, who was supposed to appear in only one or two episodes. "But that's what happened to me. I came on with my infamous [coconut] line, and they kept giving me these wonderful little gems that would just stand out."

Gloria, an incarcerated mom who tends to be the maternal voice of reason for other inmates at Litchfield Penitentiary, will stand out more than ever in season six, which arrives this summer.

"She wants blood when she comes back," Leyva says. "But we will see a beautiful arc that I was given, to show another side of her, which will be interesting." An Afro-Latina of Cuban and Dominican descent, Leyva has experienced a lot of pushback in her career from confused casting directors who didn't believe she was Latina. "She's great, but she doesn't look Mexican — she looks black," was a common refrain, she says.

"And this was six years ago, not 20," recalls the actress, who once refused when another casting director suggested she speak with a more exaggerated Spanish accent while auditioning for a part as a maid.

An activist on screen and off — Leyva is a vocal proponent of LGBT rights and plays the leader of a feminist vigilante group in AMC's new Dietland — she isn't shy about speaking up. And, as the mother of a 14-year-old girl who's proud to call herself a feminist, Leyva is cautiously optimistic about what the future holds for women, including women of color, in Hollywood and beyond.

"Changes are happening, but they're coming slowly," she says. "But if I'm not hopeful, what's the point?"

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2018

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